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All Rules in Social Conflicts

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Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 166
Before designing a social conflict for your campaign, you should determine its pace. There are two main types of pacing that can help introduce social conflict into your game: episodic and serialized. Each has its own strengths and challenges outlined below.

Episodic Pacing

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 166
When you’re running a game with episodic pacing, you inject minor incidents of social conflict into the normal course of exploration and adventure. This typically requires you to introduce a minor social conflict or two when the PCs enter a settlement or come into contact with some other social unit. This type of pacing works best when these small-scale social conflicts are interspersed within the framework of a larger social conflict, which itself may be part of an even larger story arc in a campaign utilizing serialized pacing (see below).

One of the benefits of episodic pacing is that you only have to create a few events and their consequences at a time, and you can often postpone unveiling these incidents’ long-term consequences. This gives you time to consider future plot points that you might want to introduce later. The downside of episodic pacing is that when players encounter later consequences, they sometimes forget these minor incidents and need to be reminded about them. To illustrate episodic pacing, let’s elaborate on the example in this section’s introduction. After plundering some local ruins, the PCs return to town to sell their discoveries and celebrate their victories. With nearly every visit to the various shops and business, they hear the same story: a ruthless tough is coercing protection money from local businesses. The PCs can either ignore the plight of the local entrepreneurs or confront the extortionist.

Ignoring the situation causes the extortion to go unchecked, creating higher prices for the PCs the next time they return to the city to purchase supplies. They may even find a business or two closed on return trips, their owners squeezed out by the extortion racket. Confronting the criminal could involve some reconnoitering or an ambush, followed by a chase though the back alleys of the city, and eventually a confrontation in which the PCs thrash the miscreant and warn him that the neighborhood businesses are now under their protection. But this victory lasts only as long as the PCs stay in the city. As soon as they go off to delve into ruins or gallivant on other far-flung adventures, the extortionist or his replacement returns with more muscle and support from his patron: the local thieves’ guild. When the PCs return to the city, they might find things have only gotten worse, and that the thieves’ guild is keen to teach the adventurers a lesson.

Such back-and-forths can go on between the PCs’ traditional adventures or until the PCs decide to put their full concentration toward the problems plaguing their friends in the city, at which point the pacing may become more serialized.

Serialized Pacing

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 166
With serialized pacing, a large number of events quickly flow into one another. Sometimes the structure of events is immediately altered due to the consequences of previous events. Other times, consequences determine the events that the PCs participate in next. Use serialized pacing when social conflict is the main thrust of a campaign or a campaign arc. Running social conflicts with a serialized structure is more difficult because events must be modified or generated on the fly with more frequency due to PC actions.

To illustrate serialized pacing, let’s imagine the PCs discover a strange troublemaker has been instigating orc raids on the borders of a duchy. Soon after, the PCs encounter a mob intent on taking revenge on a local halforc couple in a misguided attempt to enact retribution for the raids. Stepping in and saving the couple, the PCs soon find themselves in conflict with the supporters of a silver-tongued new vizier in the duke’s court who has been advising the ruler to rid himself of troublesome non-humans, as well as advocating other policies of human supremacy.

Circumstances point to a connection between this new vizier and the strange troublemaker on the frontier, and they might even be the same person. This leads the PCs to all manner of events, balls, and political meetings to gain more information about the vizier, her history, and how she gained her current support. During the course of these investigations, they run afoul of more of the vizier’s supporters. With each conflict and bit of information, they uncover the vizier’s true connection to the raids and their purpose. She aims to discredit the local barons, centralize control over the duchy, and dominate the duke. Eventually, the PCs have the chance to expose the vizier’s secret agenda to the populace during a final showdown: a verbal duel wherein the vizier attempts to discredit the PCs’ evidence.

In this example of serialized pacing, nearly the entire story revolves around the social conflict at hand, with each event leading to another in a complex web of intrigue.